Jadran Split’s Zvonimir Butic has been talking with HVS about his memories of winning the Croatian Championship last season, as well as Split’s prospects this season.
“Last season ended like a dream,” Butic reminisces to the Croatian Water Polo Federation, “but truth be told, the start was not great.” Recalling the Supercup and Croatian Cup defeats to Jug early on, he adds, “We lost two trophies at the beginning, as well as the Regional League, not to mention that against Vouliagmeni, we gambled away the possibility of entering the Final 8 of the Champions League.”
The team’s journey took an unexpected turn when Coach Mile Smodlaka stepped down. “It was a real man’s act,” says the 24-year-old Croat, explaining Smodlaka’s departure. “He sensed the tide was against us. Jure Marelja came in as coach and really changed a lot of things, mostly in terms of some personal tasks.” The transformation culminated in the club’s first Croatian championship title. Butic reflects, “To this day, when I pass through the city, I always meet someone who refers to that trophy.”
The club’s recruitment team has certainly earned plaudits for their smart pre-season transfer business, and Butic believes they deserve a lot of credit “The club’s management did an exceptional job”. The acquisition of talents like Loren Fatović, Josip Vrlić, Đure Radović and Konstantin Kharkov has injected fresh energy into the squad. Butić acknowledges the departures of Dobud and Rino Burić as ‘a big minus’. Replacing Andjelo Šetka’s captaincy, a role he held for six years, is no small feat. “It’s not easy to do,” Butić admits.
When queried about the team’s revamp, particularly the addition of left-handers like Kharkov and Radovic, Butic says he is not worried about falling down the pecking order. “As far as that is concerned, I always have an approach – ‘Train and work, if you get the chance, show what you know.'” He adds, “With Marelja, we all rotate in the pool, we all play. Sometimes we are in other positions, so I am sure I will play. If that doesn’t happen, then it means that there is obviously a problem in me, that I have to train and work even more. That’s it.”
The Champions League group stage draws excitement on the Dalmatian Coast as Jadran faces its namesake from Montenegro, Jadran Herceg Novi, and Hungarian Champions Ferencvaros, alongside an undetermined qualifier from Group A, which could feature strong contenders like Honved and Barcelona:
“I would not rule out Hannover, which is also the host of that tournament. As far as we’re concerned, the draw is fine, it’s the Champions League. We knew that we would get an ultra-difficult opponent, which in my opinion is Ferencvaros, who, along with Pro Recco, is perhaps the first favourite for the title of European champion. Jadran from Herceg Novi brought two Russians, and they will play their home games in Trebinje, which will not be easy. However, we have a very good team, such a coach, and there is no reason why we should not be top-class and dangerous to everyone.”
Shifting gears, Butic gives his view on the revamped Champions League format, now featuring four groups culminating in a Final Four. Butic supports the change, expressing, “So far it sounds good to me because the Final 8 is hard to watch water polo for three days in a row of 4 games.”
Butic also gives a thumbs up to the home and away format at the quarter-final stage, citing that the Water Polo Champions League should try to emulate UEFA Champions League. “It would be ideal to copy the football Champions League,” he said. “A home-away game raises the interest of the audience, the fans, and fills the stands.”
Expectations are much higher than previous seasons for Jadran Split, who come into the 2023/2024 season as Croatian Champions. They’ve made several strong signings and as Croatia’s best club, they have the luxury of automatic qualification to the Champions League group stage. Butic, however, admits he avoids making bold predictions at the start of each season. “The season is long. We have a good team, but (the team) has also changed.” Creating chemistry is the first priority in Butic’s view: “We’ve got players who will now be in the starting line-up, and they’re new, so we have to fit in well with them”.